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Although recovery is possible for everyone with eating disorders, treatment works best when the disordered thoughts and behaviors are caught early. With prompt care, patients do not have as many symptoms, experience fewer health complications, and respond faster to treatment.

Spotting an eating disorder in adolescence is often quite tricky, however, as teens and children will often keep their disordered thoughts private and hide their maladaptive coping behaviors. Parents can work around that problem by watching for key warning signs in their children, such as emotional eating.

Emotional eating is a warning sign for eating disorders because it points to an inability to cope with negative feelings. But it is not simply eating too much or too often, as there is much more to it. By learning more about this warning sign, parents can better spot the development of eating disorders in their children and get them the care they need right away.  

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is consuming food for comfort as a way to handle tough emotions or deal with stress. Foods high in sugar and fat trigger the reward centers of the brain, providing a much-needed boost when emotions are running out of control.

Since stress returns rather quickly when emotions are stifled and the underlying causes are not addressed, this boost is rather short-lived. Furthermore, foods high in sugar and fat cause a disconnect between the brain and stomach, causing the system to not know when it is full.

Due to these factors, the compulsive emotional eating sessions can turn into a vicious cycle without outside intervention. Thankfully, there is help waiting at treatment centers focused on providing care for those with binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and similar conditions.

A Look at the Cycle of Emotional Eating

When children and teens use food as a coping tool, their ability to cope in other ways declines, creating a cycle of dependence on this method. The overeating sessions often have an impact on their mental health, causing them to feel worse and reach for food to cope yet again.

As this cycle continues, they may start to feel bad about themselves, which seriously impacts their body image and self-worth. Consuming extra calories throughout the day may also cause them to gain weight, reducing their self-esteem even more. Then, they might feel compelled to reach for the food yet again in a desperate bid to distract from how they are feeling.

Over time, using food to cope with big emotions and stress can make it difficult for kids to tell when they are really hungry. They may think they are hungry when they are just feeling out of sorts or in need of comfort. As this process becomes ingrained, children and teens face a higher risk of developing eating disorders.

Eating Disorders Associated with Emotional Eating 

An inability to cope with stress in healthy ways is a risk factor when it comes to developing an eating disorder in adolescence. Whether it is overeating or restricting food intake, using food to cope with negative emotions and stress is another risk factor. When combined, teens and children may face a higher risk of developing an eating disorder unless they get help with these underlying issues.

Eating disorders associated with emotional eating include:

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder is a condition that causes people to compulsively eat large amounts of food. These individuals often feel like they are unable to stop themselves from eating. Even feelings of guilt or stomach pains are ignored, as the urge to overeat is often so overwhelming.

Children and teens with this eating disorder might:

  • Steal and hide large amounts of food
  • Binge on food over a several hour period
  • Eat extremely quickly when binging
  • Hide food wrappers in the trash
  • Feel a strong urge to overeat when around food
  • Avoid eating group meals or in public places

The guilt they feel from overeating may lead them to try to diet, creating a yo-yo effect. They may also start to develop poor self-esteem or become obsessed with their body image.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is similar to binge eating disorder in that people with this condition will eat an excessive amount of food in a short time. They also feel a strong urge to overeat that becomes overwhelming when ignored.

The difference is, with bulimia nervosa, people with this condition purge to eliminate the food from their bodies. The purging behaviors may center around self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives to quickly expel the excessive calories. They may also use exercise to keep the compulsive overeating from increasing their weight.

As children and teens engage in these behaviors, the urge to do so worsens. They may start to binge and purge even more often, causing their symptoms to grow ever worse and leading to serious health repercussions.

Anorexia Nervosa

In an attempt to halt their urge to overeat as emotional eating continues, children and teens could go on to develop anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder centers around severely restricting food as a way to gain control of their mind and body. They may start restricting food as weight gain occurs due to emotional overeating, leading to another cycle of maladaptive coping behaviors.

As this condition develops, these individuals are likely to:

  • Feel preoccupied with controlling their food intake
  • Try out a number of diets and obsessively count calories
  • Lose a large percentage of their body weight
  • Be unable to see their true body size and shape in the mirror
  • Panic at the thought of gaining weight or eating too much
  • Have poor sleeping habits and low energy throughout the day
  • Develop bizarre food rituals and intolerances
  • Avoid group meals and attempt to only eat in private

Since this condition tends to develop slowly, parents may miss the warning signs until they see their child’s low body weight. This often occurs at the doctor’s office as teens and children may wear bulky clothing or use other means to hide their weight loss.

Although these are the most common conditions linked to emotional eating, there are several other eating disorders in adolescence that could arise. Parents will need to work with a skilled eating disorder therapist to determine if their child has an eating disorder and acquire the treatment they need.

Risks of Untreated Eating Disorders 

Without care at a comprehensive treatment center, eating disorders can cause numerous health complications and can even be life-threatening. The effects can be quick or slow to start but tend to progress until the patient becomes recovered with help from their treatment team.

The most common risks of eating disorders include:


Restricting food intake and purging behaviors can leave the body without adequate hydration levels. The dehydration can cause symptoms ranging from:

  • Dry mouth
  • Thirst
  • Low urine output
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Without correction, dehydration can cause many other serious symptoms, such as low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and fast breathing. This occurs as the body has to work harder to complete its life-sustaining processes, including pumping blood through the body. The kidneys will have to work harder than ever before as well, potentially causing them to fail.

Electrolyte Imbalances

Electrolyte imbalances are common in people with eating disorders, especially in those who restrict food intake or are dehydrated. The body needs the right balance of potassium, sodium, and other electrolytes to function properly.

Without those substances in the correct balance, malfunctions occur at the cellular level, causing:

  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Poor blood vessel function
  • Heart tissue overgrowth
  • Imbalanced fluid levels

As this occurs, the heart has to work even harder to pump blood through the body and can get overworked. Heart failure can occur as a result unless health professionals restore the right balance in a timely manner.

Gastrointestinal Damage

Both overeating and restricting food intake can cause damage to the gastrointestinal system by interfering with its normal function. Purging behaviors can also cause harm to the throat and other structures, causing them to wear thin and function improperly.

When damage to these structures occurs, teens and children may experience:

  • Stomach pain
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Salivary gland swelling
  • Intestinal blockages
  • Pancreatitis

Thinning of the tissue in the throat or stomach can lead to ruptures that require surgical treatment. Without prompt care, the ruptured tissue can even prove life-threatening. Surgical interventions come with the risk of infection as well.

Other Health Risks

Depending on the child’s disordered behaviors, eating disorders come with many other potential risks, including:

  • Poor focus
  • Hair loss
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Anemia
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lanugo

Teens and adolescents are also at risk of developing hypothermia as their core temperature drops from a lack of food. High cholesterol levels are also common at this stage, as the body tries to cope with the effects of starvation.

Warning Signs of Emotional Eating

Since eating disorders can cause serious health consequences, it is important for parents to help their kids get treatment as soon as they notice the signs. Even if parents are unsure, they should reach out for help from an eating disorder treatment center. Eating disorder therapists can use objective assessments to determine when teens and adolescents are in need of treatment for an eating disorder, taking the guesswork out of the equation.

Since emotional eating can lead to the development of eating disorders, parents should watch for this behavior in their children. Teens and adolescents may not be fully forthcoming about their disordered thoughts and even try to hide their behaviors, so parents will have to watch closely to notice the signs.

The most common signs of emotional eating include:

  • A strong urge to eat when sad or stressed out
  • Requests to eat when they are already full
  • Sudden, intense feelings of hunger
  • Strong cravings that occur out of nowhere
  • Preference for junk food over healthier snacks
  • Inability to handle stress and negative emotions
  • Lack of control over eating habits
  • Guilt about overeating
  • Low self-esteem

Although these signs are normal on occasion, it is when they arise more often than not that they pose a problem. If parents notice these signs in their children on a daily basis, it is likely time to reach out for help.

How to Acquire Eating Disorder Treatment

When parents reach out to an eating disorder treatment center for help, their kids will receive support from a whole team of skilled professionals. The process starts with guidance and support from the admissions specialist during the first call. This eating disorder expert will ask important questions and address all concerns, helping parents take the first steps toward getting help for their kids.

While working through the admission steps, parents will fill out an intake assessment and provide their child’s pertinent medical information. This will help teens and adolescents receive the right level of care for their eating disorder and all co-occurring conditions. After the child enters treatment, the family will remain an integral part of the recovery process.

They will have many opportunities to participate in helping their child become and remain fully recovered, including through:

  • Open communication with the care team
  • Education programs and seminars
  • Individual and group family therapy sessions
  • Parent only support groups

They will also have a chance to participate in exposure opportunities where patients and their families practice their new skills together.

When it comes time to reach out for help, parents just have to call 866-784-9358 to reach an admission specialist. During that call, they can discuss their concerns and receive the support needed to get their


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.